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Flying and Selling

MIT’s human-powered aircraft was also a promising marketing vehicle.

The elegant Daedalus prototype hangs from the ceiling in the Boston Museum of Science’s Blue Wing, a relic of a world-record-breaking human-powered flight. The wings of the 69-pound aircraft are slim and long; the pod beneath, where the pilot sat, is cramped and narrow. One lone propeller blade sits at the front of the craft. And inside the pilot’s pod are bicycle pedals.

Peddling while Pedaling Test pilot Erik Schmidt sported a Shaklee T-shirt in a trial run of the Daedalus.

This feat of engineering captured the world’s attention in 1988, when Kanellos Kanellopoulos, the 14-time cycling champion of Greece, re-created the mythical flight of Daedalus across the Aegean Sea. Using only his own muscle power, Kanellopoulos pedaled more than 70 miles through the sky–roughly equivalent to running two marathons back to back.

Dreamed up in 1985 by MIT faculty and student engineers, the Daedalus featured a technical design that required aeronautical and design skills above and beyond the ordinary. Meanwhile, flying it demanded incredible reserves of strength and stamina. Attracted by those requirements, Shaklee, a maker of natural nutrition products, signed on as a project sponsor. By providing much-needed funding, the company attached its name and products to one of the greatest human-endurance events in the world.

The sponsorship came at an opportune time for Shaklee: the sports-drink marketplace was about to explode. Another firm, Gatorade, had already gained visibility and success by placing logos on coolers used by nationally televised sports teams and hiring celebrity pitchmen such as basketball star Michael Jordan.

Shaklee, which had traditionally sold its products directly to consumers with minimal advertising, decided to get in the game, Gatorade-style. But it did not simply hand MIT a blank check. The Daedalus sponsorship gave Shaklee the chance to slap its logo on press kits, route maps, project vehicles, and pilot uniforms. The company also provided pilots with “media message points,” coaching them on how to incorporate Shaklee into conversations with reporters. But in what was perhaps the company’s biggest PR coup, the Daedalus Project’s physiologist, Yale professor Ethan Nadel, worked with Shaklee to create a glycogen-replacing beverage. Known as Shaklee’s Performance, it would be marketed as the drink that powered the Daedalus pilot as he pedaled “between the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini in less than four hours.”

Project manager John Langford ‘79, SM ‘83, SM ‘85, PhD ‘87, was skeptical; in an internal memo, he wrote of the sports drink, “My guess is that this stuff is a better bet for the building crew than for the pilots.” But the project needed the funds, so ­Langford replied politely to Shaklee and signed on the dotted line. “Whatever happens,” he told his team, “this is a step up from beer and peanuts.” As the project successfully unfolded, press coverage amped up, and Shaklee, among other corporate sponsors, got the attention it hoped for.

Still, some team members appear to have remained somewhat ambivalent about the PR efforts of the project’s official “nutritional sponsor.” When it came time for a professional group photo, two senior MIT engineers who had been part of the Daedalus Project from Day One ignored the Shaklee mandate to prominently display the corporate logo at all public events and for all media coverage. Instead of donning the logo-emblazoned flight jacket worn by most of the rest of the team, they stood beside their aircraft in shirt and tie, one with his arms firmly folded over his chest and the other with his hands stuffed into his pants pockets.

On April 23, 1988, a shirtless ­Kanellopoulos pedaled from Crete to Santorini in a record-breaking 3 hours, 54 minutes, and 59 seconds. During the flight, he wore only a pair of plain black cycling shorts that he’d lightened at the last minute by cutting holes in the sides. But when the craft landed in the water just off the beach and Kanellopoulos strode ashore, he was quickly wrapped in a ­Daedalus team jacket with a prominent Shaklee patch.

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